Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Blue and the Grey

I hurried out of town, mainly because I knew weather was coming in later, and I wanted to get as far south as possible.  Breakfast was eaten at the hotel, which consisted of two pieces of bread in a plain white paper bag.  The bags were lined up neatly beside the coffee dispensers, and I imagine their number corresponded exactly to the number of guests.  These were all working men, most in overalls, chewing silently as if in thought about what the day would bring.  Judging from the look of the sky, it would bring cold.

I walk south along a busy road without shoulders.  As if demarcating a boundary, a massive concrete overpass connects the mountains that shaped the valley I was now entering.  Passing beneath I look up at the thing, trying to divine its purpose.  I can understand the need to speed past uninspired cities, but this place wasn't really between anything and anything else.  As I walk, I muse awhile on man's need to keep building, to keep producing.  It is beginning to feel like an end run toward nowhere. Much like, in fact, this overpass.  I will risk sounding naive by saying I wish that man would just finally be satisfied on what he has, and thereafter shift to caring for what he's already got.  Rather than build new useless roads, why not put the same money into repairing the old ones, and the tunnels, and the bridges, and all of those other Bubble Era follies that are beginning to collapse and kill people.  But I also understand that to stop producing means that the world economy will itself collapse and kill people.  Plus that would mean too great a zeitgeist shift in these days of planned obsolescence.   Yet ultimately it will be us that becomes obsolete.  You can plan on it.  

The residents of Hikida do show some pride in what they have.  A pretty lane runs alongside a small stream that gurgles merrily before the well-kept houses.  Just beyond the south end of the village I'm led toward the hills along a well-marked trail.  Despite this, I don't see any sign that anyone has hiked here in a while.  I follow the water upward, until the stream becomes a brook, and then a creek before disappearing completely when a switchback leads me away.  It isn't a particularly hard hike, but I am quickly gaining  elevation.  The views back down the valley are filled with shadow as the storm keeps rolling in.

I'm up and over the pass.  This, the Shiga side is all sunny and warm.  I sit a bit in front of a Jizo hall, itself ringed with smaller stone Jizo that are laden with flowers and offerings.  A waterfall lowers itself over the lip of the forest floor above me.  A trio of dippers here indicate an offering for myself too.  I eat a Snickers bar, washed down by cold snow melt.  One of hiking's finer moments. 

Down the trail,  I meet a lone workman rebuilding a bridge by laying broad slabs of chiseled stone across a gap in the trail.  This whole section since the Pass is pretty wet, the stream beside having been violently thrown from its bed by last month's typhoon.  It now traces the spaces between what had once been cobblestone trail.  Further on still it becomes swamp.  The place seems to be popular with wild boars, for their tracks are simply everywhere.  Kumazasa rises up now, above the ruins of another hamlet, this one only revealing itself by a few stone foundations.  Before entering the forest earlier, I'd passed a few abandoned homes, now just a pile of fallen timber.  Beside one, some of the better pieces of wood have been stacked, reusable perhaps as firewood.  But this place higher up has seen no residents for decades.  The Japanese had always feared the mountains, seen them as the place where the dead reside.  But with the coming of the industrial age, they finally pushed upward.  Now, as the birthrate continues its dramatic fall, the mountains are pushing back.

I pay for my lovely hike by being forced to walk the shoulderless Route 8 again.  An hour on I'll enter the hills again, which rise straight up out of the plain.  It is very hard work ascending to the pass, the switchbacks teasing me with a series of false ridgelines.  Atop one, I startle a clan of deer, perhaps a dozen.  I'm breathless as I watch each of them race by me with magical grace and power.  They remain with me all the way to the top.

It's only noon now, the bulk of my day behind me.  After a short lunch, I'll have an equally steep descent, which I negotiate quickly with trekking poles, mimicking the surety of four feet that the deer demonstrated above.  But what those creatures lack are the thumbs needed to work the latch on the gate at the base of the trail.  Once through it, I find myself on the shore of Lake Yodo.  The sun is very warm here, the water very inviting.  I'll navigate its body clockwise, never far from her glistening surface.  Ducks rise with an incredible roar, as the air around them is displaced by the movement of a hundred wings.  My own footfalls are a sorry substitute as they lead once again onto a busy road for the last few kilometers into Kinomoto.

I find a choice of trains, but decide on a route that follows the way I just came, then along the quieter western shore of Biwa.  There's nothing before me cities, and their trademark bustle.

But the day is brilliant and warm.  No need to hurry.

On the turntable:  Ry Cooder, "The Music of Ry Cooder"
On the nighttable:  Rebecca Otowa, "At Home in Japan"

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